To listen to some Dartmouth residents, the call to replace the school’s mascot is believed to be the work of woke elite outsiders intent on canceling a beloved town institution, introducing divisions into the community, and wiping out the entire history of New England. Despite the drama and hyperbole, many don’t know the full history of the mascot.

Misrepresentation and cultural appropriation of Native American lives began centuries earlier with the expropriation of Native American lands by European settlers. Years of native tradition and community were annihilated. By Thanksgiving Day 1964, surviving native people had been cornered into reservations, were invisible to much of white society, and had few economic prospects.

On that Thanksgiving in 1964, in Dartmouth, in the heart of the Wampanoag Nation, a white student at an almost all-white high school was “playing dress-up,” mocking a culture oppressed for more than 500 years. This was taking place only miles from Russell’s Garrison, where 80 Wampanoag had been slaughtered or enslaved. 

That Thanksgiving Day — never a day for indigenous celebration — was novel and nobody (at least the white residents) were complaining. The Indian mascot, brother of the Cigar Store Indian and cousin to the Black lawn jockey and Jewish and Chinese caricatures was accepted without a second thought. With few moral compunctions, discriminatory logos and images, mascots, names, and cartoons blossomed throughout White America.

After adoption as a mascot by Dartmouth High School, the logo has evolved from an insulting cartoon to a questionable attempt at representing a generic “Indian,” and finally, to what it is today.

In 2020 the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) belatedly decided to address racism: “all the school districts in the Commonwealth must guarantee that racist practices are eradicated, and diversity, equity and inclusion is embedded and practiced for our students, families, faculty and staff.”

Even before this, a number of Massachusetts tribes and nations had offered statements to the state Senate in favor of a legal ban on Native American mascots. Joining them were two local tribes, the Pocasset Wampanoag and Mashpee Wampanoag, both of whom publicly voiced support for the joint legislation, H.581 and S.295. 

Not only did Massachusetts tribes take action, but many colleges have changed names and mascots to show some respect toward Native Americans. Dartmouth College, originally founded as a school to remove the “native” from Native Americans through assimilation in the past, bowed to a Native American student petition to retire its mascot, finally retiring it in 1974. That mascot was virtually identical to the one used by Dartmouth High School, which has not only taken Dartmouth College’s “Big D,” its nickname “Big Green,” but its football fight song, too. 

By the late 1980s, Dartmouth schools had abandoned a short-lived “Pathfinder” design in favor of Dartmouth College’s more stylized “Indian.” The college’s image is shown on the left, the high school’s on the right:

Despite a large body of work showing how misrepresentations of Native Americans and the use of mascots harm both Native and non-native children alike, these practices haven’t raised any alarms in the majority of school administrators and Dartmouth.

The mascot battle has been waged on social media, by rumor, lies, and innuendo, and in Town Hall, the School Committee, and a Diversity Committee that has received little support. On April 5, Dartmouth’s 91% white residents will consider a non-binding ballot question on whether to permit the community to continue insulting a minority.

Culture should be respected and not appropriated. Culture, history, and value systems can be shared, celebrated, and appreciated by everyone. But culture is not something to be misrepresented. And it belongs exclusively to those who created it. 

Cultural misrepresentation is found all over: in costumes; the adoption of traditions with no knowledge of their origins; or when a culture or identity is hijacked. Racist depictions, revisionist history, and cultural insensitivity by the victors of history harm and cause resentment.

Instead, indigenous people need space to define themselves, teach others about their culture, and to correct misrepresentations about them.

If anything can improve relations between diverse groups and build a bridge to respect and understanding, this may be our best hope.

Avary Amaral is a Dartmouth High School junior; an assistant editor for the school’s newspaper, The Spectrum; and the social media manager of the NAACP New Bedford Youth Council.

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